Thursday 25 February 2016


Bill Bryson famously said he once secured a job on an English broadsheet  by claiming to be the only person in the room who could reliably spell Cincinnati. [I'm not saying whether I've got the spelinge correct]. The city in Ohio is named for the Society of the Cincinnati, a strange hereditary patriotic society that was founded at the end of the US Revolutionary War in 1783.  One of the founders of the city 5 years later was a member of the SotC and got the name to stick. The Society was itself named after Lucius Quinctus Cincinnatus [L in a striking pose realised by Denis Foyatier in 1834; you can see it now in the Jardin des Tuileries in Central Paris].
Q. Who he?
A. Well Really! As Bill Bryson would exclaim in exasperation when crossed. Cincinnatus was one of the iconic Great Men of ancient times a paragon. He is more usually depicted in a chiton (a shortie skirt for ancient farrrrmers) with one hand still on the plough and the other receiving the fasces of supreme power in the Roman Republic. This montage is often accompanied by the motto "Omnia reliquit servare rempublicam" - he left everything to serve the republic. Which is indeed, the motto of the Society of the Cincinnati. The fasces was an axe, bound in a bundle of sticks, which recalls a Roman fairy story about how squabbling brothers united to resist oppression; it was adopted by Benito Mussolini when he formed his Partito Nazionale Fascista in 1922. So the fasces don't have such positive vibes now as they did in 1783.

Cincinnatus was an aristocratic politician whose every action and inaction had only the good of the state in mind: nothing in it for him but service. The story goes that in 458 BC [= 295 A.U.C.], when the Roman Republic was fighting a war on two fronts against the Sabines and the Aequi, their main military force got into a serious pickle and the Senate back in Rome went all wet and had a fit of the vapours. Someone had the idea to get Cincinnatus out of  retirement on his farm across the Tiber and offer him dictatorial powers for 6 months. A delegation found the old chap doing a bit of light ploughing; on hearing the bad news he took off his shift and donned a senatorial toga to receive the symbols of office. He then hot-footed into the city; gave some backbone to the magistrates and senators; issued a general call to arms; appointed a leader for cavalry; led the infantry against the enemy and won a famous victory at Mons Algidus. The crisis was averted, the enemy beaten and order restored . . . all in 15 days. He then relinquished his office, rowed back across the Tiber and resumed ploughing. Modest, effective, resolute, incorruptible - Roman virtues. George Washington was often favourably compared to Cincinnatus when he won the war and promptly went home to Mount Vernon to watch his slaves keep the estate ticking over.

Why Cincinnatus now? Because I was listening to a lot of pundits and soothsayers talking about the Irish election on the wireless this last weekend. One chap said something rather cogent to the effect that solving the inefficiencies of the Irish health service is surely possible. What is impossible is to create a slim, trim and fit-for-purpose health service AND get elected again in 5 years time. The same applies to all the other issues which are on the agenda this month: social housing, free water, high taxes, child-care expenses. IF a modern Cincinnatus would materialise to take the hard decisions, make savage cuts, require everyone on the pay-roll to justify their existence, inspire and support the remaining Effectives THEN we could create a health service which is the envy of the world. Such a Roman Revenant would be especially heeded if he carried out his investigations striking a pose such as we see at the head of this post.

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